Protester shot while trying to pull down statue honoring mass murderer

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·6 min read

A protester was shot in New Mexico Monday night, in what police say is the latest incident of violence from groups counterprotesting civil rights demonstrations.

The issue was a statue of 16th century Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate, which stands outside a museum in Old Town Albuquerque. Protesters attempting to remove the statue clashed with armed counterprotesters, including members of a militia group calling itself the New Mexico Civil Guard. After the confrontation escalated, a man identified by police as Steven Ray Baca allegedly fired shots into a group following him.

Police said the man who was shot was in critical but stable condition.

Baca was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He is the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff and ran for City Council last year. During his campaign, Baca said that the community was turning into a “third world country” and said local elected officials were acting like “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime.” Video from earlier in the protest shows him throwing a woman to the ground.

Armed members of the New Mexico Civil Guard have been attending Black Lives Matter protests since the beginning of the month. They were also present at protests against social-distancing guidelines in April. While Baca’s association with the group is unclear, video shows members surrounding him to protect him after he fired the shots.

Earlier Monday, in the northern part of the state, officials had removed a different statue of Oñate, who was responsible for the Acoma Massacre in 1599, in which as many as 1,000 Native Americans were killed and many others maimed by amputation. He was accused and convicted by the Spanish colonial government — not known for its sensitivity to the indigenous population of North America — of using “excessive force” against the Acoma people.

Protesters use a chain to try to remove the Juan de Oñate statue in Albuquerque. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal via Zuma Wire)
Protesters use a chain to try to remove the Juan de Oñate statue in Albuquerque. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal via Zuma Wire)

In response to the shooting, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the statue would be removed “until the appropriate civic institutions can determine next steps.”

“We are receiving reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence. If this is true, we will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution,” Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier said in a news release.

Police in Albuquerque had already faced scrutiny for their contacts with the armed militia groups. Earlier this month, a video caught an officer talking to MMA fighter Jon Jones and a group of men, some armed, outside an academy where he trains.

“I’m sure you guys can deescalate just by talking to them,” an officer told Jones. “But, obviously with us in uniform, they treat us a little bit different. So I mean, if you guys can talk to them on that level.”

The Albuquerque Police Department said this was not its policy. “It has come to our attention that a couple of our officers met with a group as they prepared to attend Monday’s protest. This was not a Department-sanctioned contact, and we are investigating the incident,” wrote the department on Twitter. Gilbert Gallegos, spokesperson for the APD, said the incident was being investigated but the officer had not been disciplined.

“We want to discourage groups from attempting to engage in a public safety role during protests and large gatherings. They are not trained, and they are more likely to escalate tensions if they are carrying firearms and dressed like military or law enforcement officers,” Gallegos said in a statement to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Steven Ray Baca. (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Steven Ray Baca. (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office via AP)

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, called on the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the shooting.

“This is not the first report of heavily armed civilian militias appearing at protests around New Mexico in recent weeks,” said Heinrich. “These extremists cannot be allowed to silence peaceful protests or inflict violence.”

The violence from counterprotesters is not limited to New Mexico. In Bethel, Ohio, over the weekend, peaceful protesters participating in a Solidarity With Black Lives demonstration were met with racial slurs and violence by motorcycle groups, Back the Blue pro-police organizations and gun-rights advocates. In Facebook videos from the event, counterprotesters were recorded repeatedly using a racial slur against blacks, while another showed a group of men following a pro-Black Lives Matter demonstrator to her car and warning her she could get hurt if she stayed.

Village Administrator Travis Dotson told the Cincinnati Enquirer that officials received an anonymous call saying busloads of presumed antifa protesters were on their way to Bethel from Columbus. Dotson said that the village had received at least one similar call previously and that there is no evidence to suggest this claim is true.

“It’s kind of amazing how quick social media spreads,” Bethel Police Chief Steve Teague said. “We were told this morning they were busing in protestors. We’re given screenshots from social media with some guns saying, ‘We’re going to Bethel, we’ll take care of what they didn’t take care of yesterday.’”

Demonstrators climb the statue of Don Juan de Oñate in Old Town Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ Albuquerque Journal via Zuma Wire)
Demonstrators climb the statue of Juan de Oñate in Old Town Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ Albuquerque Journal via Zuma Wire)

In the early days of the George Floyd protests, President Trump, Attorney General William Barr and other administration officials warned that antifa, an umbrella term for radical left-wing activist groups that sometimes engage in street brawls, was responsible for violent protests. Due to misleading information and outright fabrications on social media, communities went on high alert for what turned out to be imaginary buses filled with protesters bent on destroying suburban and rural municipalities. They never showed, and there has been little evidence from the Justice Department to support claims that antifa activists were behind episodes of looting or rioting. There have, however, been multiple arrests tied to the right-wing militia “boogaloo” movement, which explicitly seeks to provoke racial conflict leading to a civil war.

Earlier this month in Washington state, a multiracial family on a camping trip was accused of being antifa and was followed by multiple vehicles that carried passengers with rifles. The panic has led to at least one confrontation at gunpoint with innocent bystanders. Scott Gudmundsen faces felony charges in Colorado after police found him dressed in fatigues and holding two men hostage at gunpoint. They were roofing salesmen, wearing polo shirts and protective masks as they went door to door following a hailstorm.

Officials said that Gudmundsen called police, saying that there were two “antifa guys” in the neighborhood and that “I am going out there to confront them.” Arrest documents state that Gudmundsen knelt on the neck of one of the men, who is a Colorado State football player. The names of the victims were not released, but an email from CSU referred to the player as “a young man of color.”

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